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Biden aims to take on China by boosting economic ties between U.S. and South Korea

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Even as Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, President Biden has headed off to Asia, his first trip there since taking office. He kicked things off at a semiconductor factory in South Korea. It's owned by Samsung, which is spending $17 billion to build a similar plant in Texas. Biden is looking for ways to better compete with China by working with allies like South Korea.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So this is the moment, in my view, to invest in one another, to deepen our business ties, to bring our people even closer together.

FENG: But there are huge challenges to increasing trade and investment.

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is traveling with the president, and she joins us from Seoul. Welcome, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there.

FENG: So why does Biden think that closer ties with countries like South Korea could help counter China?

KHALID: You know, to put it simply, Emily, he is concerned about China's rise. And COVID really exposed the weaknesses in the global supply chain. The president talks frequently about the need for Democratic allies to work together to make economies stronger and more resilient. He really describes it as one of the key challenges of our times.

But I will say, you know, Emily, it is not easy because of things like labor standards. In fact, President Biden today made an explicit plea to Samsung to work with unions in the United States. And, you know, really, economic strategy is a key part of this trip. While President Biden will be here in Asia, he's planning to announce the launch of this new economic framework for the region.

FENG: Hold up. Didn't the Obama White House launch a trade deal with Asia that the Trump administration then tore up? So is this that one, or is this a new economic framework?

KHALID: You know, Emily, I'm sure that you recall - and many listeners probably do - the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It had some huge political critics, both the left and the right. And on his first day in office, former president Donald Trump withdrew from TPP. And I will say, frankly, there's not a whole lot of appetite from Democrats to rejoin that trade agreement.

I spoke to Evan Medeiros about this the other day. He handled Asia policy under former president Barack Obama.

EVAN MEDEIROS: The Biden team is not interested in negotiating trade agreements or trying to rejoin TPP, and that matters in East Asia because in East Asia, economic security is national security. And if the United States is not able to present itself as both the economic partner of choice as well as the national security partner of choice, that is a liability. And it's one that the Chinese can and are exploiting.

KHALID: So in lieu of entering a multinational trade agreement like TPP, the Biden administration is carving out this new initiative called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. President Biden will roll out more details in Japan about this on Monday. But broadly, it is not a tangible trade agreement like we normally think of. This is more about setting the rules of the road around things like supply chains and digital trade.

FENG: We've been seeing American political leaders trying to focus their foreign policy on China for years now. But something always comes up that seems to pull their attention away because there are other crises happening in the world. How is Biden finding time for this trip, given what's happening in Ukraine right now?

KHALID: You know, I do think it is noteworthy that the president is here in Asia while the war continues in Europe. You know, I will say also, though, that this has been a continuous balancing act for him. The administration's Indo-Pacific strategy was released on February 11, just two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. And experts tell me that there are really two main takeaways from the Ukraine crisis for Asia policy. One is this concern from some Asian allies about whether the United States actually has the bandwidth, the resources to deal with simultaneous crises in Europe and Asia.

The other takeaway, though, they say - and perhaps this is more positive - is a sense that alliances really do matter and that the United States has been instrumental in bringing allies in Europe and allies in the Pacific together to punish Russia for its aggression. And, you know, we see this in how South Korea and Japan have worked with the United States on export controls and sanctions. The thing is experts say that, you know, this trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific bond could be an actual effective deterrent for other countries, you know, say, like China. Of course, the key question is whether this global bond will actually be a long-lasting relationship.

FENG: We shall see, then. NPR's Asma Khalid in Seoul. Thank you.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.